Terrible Coverage and Such Small Portions: A Media Field Guide
“It’s in the second paragraph.” – Hildy Johnson, reluctant newspaper man
“Who the hell’s going to read the second paragraph?” – Walter Burns, enthusiastic newspaper man
On a day-to-day level, global warming is slow and imperceptible, which makes it perfect kryptonite for modern media outlets that prize speed and novelty above all else. In climate terms, something that drags out over mere decades qualifies as rapid, and the truly huge consequences require lifetimes to make themselves felt. Meanwhile, contemporary American news coverage races from story to story in a matter of hours while ignoring anything that doesn’t demand instant and breathless attention.
In the mad pursuit of web traffic and TV ratings, items that were breaking national news in the morning can be all but forgotten by afternoon and today’s viral sensation swiftly becomes tomorrow’s stale curiosity. By its very name and definition, the news is what’s new; and when it comes to global warming, there is rarely anything new. Basic climate science has barely changed in thirty years and the worst effects won’t make themselves felt for thirty years more. All the ‘new’ developments about climate are around the edges: this glacier is melting faster than previously thought; that technology isn’t as clean as expected; current temperatures are marginally higher than the models predicted.
There is a distinct lack of action in all of those stories for the simple reason that hardly anything actually happened. New research that refines and supports existing conclusions is excellent scientific practice but it is also crushingly boring to non-specialists. And it leaves the poor bastards in the media with very little grist for their mill.
Even when the climate models prove out and record breaking weather elbows its way onto the front page, the stories disappear from the headlines as fast as the smoke clears and the water recedes, usually without a single mention of the C-word. Journalists and audiences love gawking at disasters, especially if there’s pics and video, but they rarely frame the wreckage inside the larger context of global warming because, from a media perspective, that shit is boring.
That fundamental incompatibility between what the media wants (quick & dramatic novelties) and what science provides (slow & steady updates) is why climate coverage whipsaws between two extremes: nonexistent and numbingly repetitive.
Television: See No Climate, Hear No Climate, Speak No Climate
“You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV.” – Suzanne Stone Maretto, television professional and stone psychopath
The most important decisions journalists make aren’t about how they cover a story, but about what stories they cover in the first place. Even with 24-hour news and the infinite column inches of the internet, there are (and always will be) more things happening than there are reporters to find out about them. That scarcity means that there is no universal law about what is or isn’t newsworthy, and whether any given event makes the news is something of a crapshoot.
A simple house fire probably doesn’t warrant attention without eye grabbing pictures. But a house fire that has a fatality might make the news even if the cameras don’t get there until after the flames are out. And if a fire happens at a mansion belonging to a celebrity, it will absolutely get covered, no matter how little damage was done.
Incidental details matter as well. Arson is more interesting than faulty wiring or an unattended cigarette. A family with kids tugs more heartstrings than a single person living alone. A tragedy that strikes on Christmas or the Fourth of July gets a boost over one that occurs on some random weekday. Secondary aspects like those push any given event up or down the sliding scale of notoriety that determines what journalists care to find out about.
As a background process that only makes itself felt through other events, global warming is at a constant disadvantage from these ingrained and longstanding media practices. Even when climate can be linked to spectacular events like hurricanes, wildfires, and floods, it’s not the star of the show. Carbon pollution is never the fire itself, only the faulty wiring, an afterthought outside the immediate who, what, where, and when. The why, two steps removed from the action, is fated to be the last aspect included and the first to get cut.
The results of this unthinking exclusion are broadcast out to the entire country day after day, year after year. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey sat on the seven million people who live in greater Houston and caused over a hundred billion dollars worth of damage. That the storm and its astronomical bill were made much worse by climate change was obvious immediately. Prior to landfall, unusually warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico supercharged Harvey from a minor irritant into a record shattering kaiju, a fact that was pointed out publicly by multiple scientists while the city was still underwater.
And yet, American media’s wall-to-wall coverage of Harvey hardly mentioned global warming. It came up in only 5% of television stories overall, and not so much as once on ABC or NBC. As is typically the case, newspapers did somewhat better, but USA Today, the highest circulation paper in the country, ran a story strongly implying that to even discuss climate in the midst of the storm was alarmist.
At the biggest and most popular news outlets, Harvey coverage amounted to climate silence with a streak of denial, a pattern as irresponsible as it is longstanding. When vast swathes of the West catch fire every year, television news rarely so much as nods to global warming. When rivers top levees across the Midwest, ABC, CBS, and NBC don’t utter a single word about climate. And when a record annihilating early summer heatwave cooked the entire continent for two straight weeks, the only time network TV mentioned climate change was a two-minute segment with a local weather guy on a single day of CBS’s morning show.
These routine failures quickly become repetitive, so here’s a couple of fun ones. In 2018, ABC humiliated itself and our nation by spending less time on climate for an entire year than they spent in a single week covering a minor change in the clan line of the syphilitic inbreeds who rule Britain. Also in 2018, Meet the Press, NBC’s premier Sunday news program, ignored climate all the way to November, when they embarrassed themselves by broadcasting a paid denier who told their audience that global temperatures are actually going down.*
(*[Narrator Voice]: They actually aren’t.)
In response to widespread criticism, Meet the Press followed up that mortifying face plant with an entire episode on global warming in December: rejecting denialism, interviewing experts, and putting science front and center on their enormous platform. But their reformed ways didn’t last long. In 2019, they went right back to ignoring climate.
What NBC’s brief moment of professional responsibility demonstrates is that television news is fully capable of doing a great job of informing the public about global warming. So far, they’ve simply chosen not to; but they can correct themselves at any time. After all, it’s not as if we’re about to run low on media catnip like deadly wildfires, killer hurricanes, scorching droughts, and other bold-italic weather disasters. All they have to do is make it a rule to add some climate narration over the disaster footage.
Has the jetstream gone wonky again, causing arctic temperatures from Iowa to Virginia while people in Anchorage are wearing shorts? Discuss extreme temperatures and accelerated arctic warming as you show footage of snowplows and icicles.
Are uncountable acres of California, Idaho, or New Mexico on fire? Spare fifteen seconds to let people know that abnormally intense hot and dry spells are exactly what scientists have been predicting.
Got hours of helicopter footage of flooded highways, farm houses, and small towns? Remind your audience that the more we pollute the air, the more this is going to happen.
Are hundreds of millions of people sweltering in record triple digit temperatures? Give us the b-roll of the thermometers, the instantly melted ice cream, and the kids playing in park fountains. Just use some of that time to bring up the direct, easily explained, and irrefutable link to global warming.
Finally, find some good looking scientists (there’s a lot of ’em!) and put them on screen. From local stations to big affiliates and all the way up to the networks themselves, mint some new stars out of people who actually know what they’re talking about. C’mon, TV, making people famous is what you’re good at and why we love you. Don’t let those rumpled snobs in print media keep scooping you when it comes to global warming. They’re hardly doing a bang up job anyway.
Newspapers and Magazines: Everything Sucks, We’re All Gonna Die, And No One Cares
“It’s coal into a furnace, Henry. I’ve been doing this for thirty-six years. Every day you still start from zero.” – Bernie, managing editor
When global warming does get coverage in American media, it typically comes from newspapers, magazines, and their on-line siblings. But the unrelenting demands of the modern attention economy still apply. Yesterday’s high traffic story doesn’t count towards today’s pageview numbers and tomorrow will be here before you know it. Publications need fresh clicks every day to make their nut and stay one step ahead of the budget ax. And as they scramble for eyeballs, the climate sits unhelpfully in the corner, quietly heating up and rarely drawing attention to itself.
Even in this whirlwind age for journalism, however, text media retains some of its advantages over video. Where TV broadcasts are rigidly timed, print and on-line publicans can expand or contract depending on what happens to be happening on any given day. While TV is structured around the Sisyphean task of keeping people’s attention through boring commercials that nobody likes watching, text media (on paper or screen) can simply put the ads next to their stories and not constantly aggravate their audience.*
(*Obviously this does not include pop-up ads, a vile demon of the ancient internet that has somehow resurrected itself in recent years.)
To its credit, text media has used this greater flexibility to pay more attention to global warming than those blowdried airheads on the tube. But that sense of duty is all too often wasted on depressing and repetitive servings of the thinnest of media gruel: reporting on reports.
When global warming isn’t submerging buildings or incinerating landscapes, it usually gets mentioned because some credible (or semi-credible) group of non-famous people have finished their homework and issued a press release. Sometimes this is the federal government or a group of scientists, sometimes it’s the United Nations or some other august international body, and sometimes it’s just a consulting firm or non-profit that knows how to write a buzzy story hook.
The immediate subjects of these reports can vary. Maybe this one is about glaciers, maybe it’s about biodiversity, maybe it’s about coral reefs, land use, or global warming’s threat to the beer, wine, or coffee supplies. The specific subject matters less than the unvarying way in which these reports are presented in the press: the news is always bad, the effects are decades away, and there isn’t much you can do about it anyway.
If it hasn’t been too long since you read Chapter 2, you may recognize those three elements – 1) bad, 2) hopeless, and 3) distant – as the exact psychological trinity that makes it so easy for global warming go in one ear and out the other. The public’s widespread misperception that global warming is all three of those things can be traced directly to thirty years of being told exactly that.
Somewhat amusingly, it is possible to trace the steady dominance of this decades long journalistic failure in the pages of the self-proclaimed paper of record, The New York Times. The Sunday after James Hanson’s epochal testimony to the Senate in 1988, the Times ran two analysis articles about just what this ‘greenhouse effect’ thing would mean for its readers. Under the dual headline of “The Heat Is On” (a popular song title of the time), the first informed readers that bad things might happen “sometime between the years 2025 and 2050”. The second, subtitled, “A Worst Case Forecast”, worried about, “how bad a summer day might be in the year 2030”. From 1988, 2025 is thirty-seven years in the future, or as distant from then as far off 2057 is from us.
Two years after that, at the release of the first official UN report on global warming, the Times buried the news deep in the paper on page A9, reflecting how repetitive the warnings had already become. Once again, the scary stuff was both abstract and well in the future, warning that “temperature would rise by nearly two degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2025 and by more than five degrees by the end of the next century”. Most of the page was devoted to a department store ad offering 25% off winter coats. Three weeks after that, under the headline, “Scientists Urging Gas Emissions Cuts”, the bad news was about “the next century” and most of the page was hawking a $160 rain coat (a little more than $300 in today’s money).
Five years later, in 1995, the UN released its second official climate assessment. The Times bumped the story back up to the front page, but didn’t mention any year closer than 2100. Six years after that, in 2001, the Times hardly bothered at all with the third UN report, running a tiny story deep in the International section on page A7. It reported that the UN had, “drafted a thick report that doubles the top end of the temperature increase predicted over the next century, by 11 degrees”, but contained no further context, not even the total amount of warming predicted. Clocking in at a mere 545 words, the story was crammed above a nearly full page ad for a rug sale at Macy’s.
For the fourth UN assessment in 2007, the Times sprang for a full story and related coverage highlighting some of the conclusions, but stuck it in the back of the paper in the once-per-week science section. The only mentions of the future are 2030 (for an increased gas tax) and the classic 2100, this time with the confusing warning that, “this shift might cause a small blunting of global economic activity, resulting in an overall reduction of perhaps one-tenth of a percentage point per year through 2100 in the world’s total economic activity”. Hey there, Times subscriber, this “might” be bad, “perhaps”, but not until 2100 and can we interest you in a fine new rug in the meantime?
In 2014, the Times reporting on the fifth UN report didn’t mention any concrete dates, instead falling back on vague abstractions. The story warned that climate change threatened “generations of progress” and explained that carbon pollution must be brought to zero “in something like 30 years”. So the Four Horsemen are on their way, but we have received word that they are taking their time and stopping frequently because Famine wants to do some sightseeing and Pestilence has a bladder the size of a walnut.
Most recently, the Times story about the current UN climate report (released in 2018) followed this age old formula to the letter. The headline (the only part of a story most people will ever see) managed to hit all three parts of the disinterest trifecta singlehandedly. “Major Climate Report Describes a Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040” implies that (1) bad things are coming, (2) they’re probably unavoidable, but (3) not for a while.
The article itself is the usual gobbledygook of contextless numbers occasionally punctuated by scare quotes and terrible (but far off) predictions about the future. Neither oil companies nor the carbon bubble are included (remember, the Times literally writes ad copy for Exxon), but they did find space for two paragraphs of bullshit from a coal industry flak. There isn’t a single example of what reducing carbon pollution would actually mean for day-to-day life, but they want you to know that those beautiful coral reefs are going die and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The commitment to keeping the bad things far off in the future is almost comically consistent. Not a single paragraph could be spared to discuss the ways global warming is already harming people, communities, and economies the world over, but they made sure to note that 2100 is going to be very bad. Mostly it discusses far off 2040; the only vision for the nearer future is to twice mention 2030, both in a negative light: once about how high carbon taxes will need to be (“Boo!”) and once to discuss hypothetical pollution levels (“Uh-oh!”).
Across successive generations of reporters and editors, The New York Times has rigidly adhered to a climate template that amounts to Cassandra crying wolf. Their stories about global warming are professionally reported, carefully edited, and follow meticulously thought out guidelines for journalistic fairness and integrity. And they suck.
When it comes to climate, being factual and scrupulous isn’t enough. If your focus is narrow, you omit the context that makes sense of your story. If your attitude is mopey, you turn people off. If you listen to the other side, you create a wholly misleading picture that serves the interests of (some of) your advertisers instead of your readers.
Worst of all, by stubbornly clinging to a template of bad, hopeless, and distant, reports like the Times has been writing for the last three decades make readers cowed and downtrodden. That fatalism leaves all the good stuff untold.
Letter to the Editors
“Kent Brockman isn’t the type to turn down a $500,000 a year job just because he won the lottery. I’m a journalist.” – Kent Brockman, well polished nitwit
The real tell that mainstream American media doesn’t understand how to cover global warming is their comprehensive sadness about it. Cutting carbon pollution is always presented within the assumption that doing so will be outrageously expensive and generally unpleasant. But there is no evidence to support such a dour axiom.
Are there reasons to be sad about global warming and its effects? Absolutely. But climate isn’t an all encompassing apocalypse from which there is no escape. It is a question of forced priorities, and so far the cream of America’s media crop has been completely unwilling to explore what Lyndon Johnson used to call ‘nut cutting’, identifying the winners and losers from the choices we face.
Building an energy efficient economy and zero pollution society is inevitably going to make some industries bigger and others smaller. Most basically, acknowledging this obvious reality would mean at least mentioning that the stock prices of Exxon, Chevron, their rivals, and their suppliers are wildly overvalued. But The New York Times only used the term “carbon bubble” once(!) in the five years from 2015 to 2020, in a longform story about an investment firm betting against the fossil industry’s conventional wisdom.* Searching the news sites of ABC, CBS, and NBC for “carbon bubble” brings up some fluff pieces about fizzy drinks but zero stories about global warming.
(*Okay, actually it was twice. But the other one was from a scientist using “carbon bubble” to describe the fact that natural ecosystems can only soak up so much of our pollution before they burst. Whee!)
Whether or not the Times and the network news make their audiences aware of it, the physical fact as clear as gravity is that we cannot cut carbon pollution while continuing to pump, refine, and burn the untapped reserves that undergird the market caps of the fossil giants. It’s one or the other. Not telling that story is a journalistic failure on par with missing the housing bubble of the 2000s and it squanders an ongoing opportunity to sling journalistic arrows at some obvious and unrepentant villains.
More applicable to daily life is something like car ownership. On average, there are two (2) cars per U.S. household. Only people who work for the auto industry think that number is compatible with necessary pollution reduction. Japan and Germany, the other two great car manufacturing countries of the world, have about one (1) car per household. Japan is actually at its pollution reduction targets and Germany is close, so what would it mean for the United States to catch up to its former foes and go from two cars per household to one?
That’s a direct, concrete, every day question for what reducing carbon pollution would mean to the readers and viewers of bad news climate stories. And yet it and similar topics are never broached. More frustrating still, the answers to this question are simple, straightforward, and easily researched.
Take just one facet of this single potential example. It is no secret that cars kill more than twice as many Americans per year as murderers. And while it probably wouldn’t be a 1:1 correlation, reaching parity with Japan and Germany on car ownership might save as many lives as if we stopped every murder from happening.
Imagine how the press corps would cover a “Project to Solve Murder”. They’d hype it from dawn til dusk and into the wee hours, leering over every salacious detail and wild conjecture. They certainly wouldn’t let such a thing get lost among dry statistics, repetitive platitudes, and hand-wringing about costs. That is the magnitude of the global warming story that is going untold.
America’s commercial media has been bungling climate for three decades now. And while they’ve shown some small improvements in the last couple of years – old school denial rarely gets airtime anymore, and The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post all now have dedicated climate desks – these have been baby steps in a marathon. Reporters and editors from the fanciest of schools spend their time regurgitating old news and gussying up press releases while remaining studiously silent about the tactics and true positions of companies and industries that make money from denial and delay.*
(*Well, not completely silent. Sometimes they write and publish ‘sponsored content’, which is the evasive term newspaper people invoke to spare themselves the indignity of admitting they do in-house advertising for the dirtiest companies in the world.)
But here’s some news for the news people: the next three decades are going to be the hottest ever. Climate will have its say in everything from recessions and revolutions to sports and culture. And thirty years from now, when the changes wrought by global warming are the dominant fact of social, economic, and political life, the press of the day will look back on this time. The interns and cub reporters of now will be the anchors and managing editors of then, and they will either laud these next few years as a great awakening or lament them as a shameful episode when their old bosses botched the biggest story ever.
The tl;dr is that the organizations that report the news, the people who style themselves the first drafters of history, need to get their shit together. The changing climate needs to be as integrated into their reporting as the Great Depression, Great Recession, and world wars were in their heydays. But it won’t all be grimdark and sad for the journalists, a lot of it will be fun, especially all the chances they’ll get to stick it to their higher paid rivals in corporate America.
In our next thrilling installment, prepare to be scandalized by the unlimited perversion and foul depravity of . . . public relations! Continue to Chapter 6 – Sponsored Content: Fairy Tales, Science Fiction, and other Make-Believe
Endnotes for Chapter 5:
[1 – https://coast.noaa.gov/states/fast-facts/hurricane-costs.html]
[6 – https://www.citizen.org/wp-content/uploads/migration/case_documents/public_citizen_storm_of_silence_harvey_climate_coverage_1.pdf]
[13 – https://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-glaciers-melting-20190408-story.html]
[14 – https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2019/05/06/one-million-species-face-extinction-un-panel-says-humans-will-suffer-result/]
[15 – https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/04/03/coral-reefs-great-barrier-reef-cant-recover-global-warming-damage/3352764002/
[19 – https://time.com/5318245/coffee-industry-climate-change/]
[21 – https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/26/weekinreview/calculating-the-consequences-of-a-warmer-planet-earth-a-worst-case-forecast.html]
[26 – https://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/03/science/04climatecnd.html]
[28 – https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/07/climate/ipcc-climate-report-2040.html]
[29 – https://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Anytimes.com+%22carbon+bubble%22&hl=en&source=lnt&tbs=cdr%3A1%2Ccd_min%3A1%2F1%2F2015%2Ccd_max%3A12%2F31%2F2019&tbm=]
[30 – http://www.umich.edu/%7Eumtriswt/PDF/SWT-2017-4.pdf]
[32 – http://www.demand.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/25-EC1-Tobias-Kuhnimhof.pdf]
[33 – https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812603][https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2017/crime-in-the-u.s.-2017/topic-pages/tables/table-1]
[34 – https://www.nytimes.com/paidpost/exxonmobil/the-future-of-energy-it-may-come-from-where-you-least-expect.html]